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Monday, January 12, 2009

The Matrix

In “The Matrix”, the main character, Neo (which means “new”), learns that his entire reality to date has been the result of a sophisticated computer generated simulation, and that he, and everyone else, has lived his life in a pod, and used as a human battery.

This is not so far from the situation we all face, but without knowing it. We think we live in the real world, but we don’t, we live in a personal sim.

Our brains do not perceive the real world. What they receive is a set of electrical impulses, generated by sensory organs – the eyes, ears, nose, skin and tongue, representing sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. The brain creates a model of what it thinks the real world is like based on those impulses.

There is no way to prove that the brain’s working sim is the same as anyone else’s. In the old saw, how can we prove that what I see as yellow, you do not see as blue? There is not way to tell that is not the case, and it really doesn’t matter as long as your brain model is internally consistent and coherent. When I eat a cheeseburger, how can you tell that my experience of eating a cheeseburger is the same as yours?

Worse, there is no way to prove that your internal model aligns with external reality. Or even that there is an external reality. Thoughts have varied over the years on this subject. Ancient Greeks like Artistotle believed in a world that was more real than our own, they saw the heavens as the source of all pure reality, while the Earth was a pale and corrupt representation of the heavenly pureness. This is similar to the idea that there is a more real world out there, represented internally by a simulation.

Modern thinkers such as Descarte (1596–1650) attempted to prove the existence of the world and of God starting from the deduced fact of their own existence (“Cogito, Ergo Sum” – “I think, therefore I am”). Actually, he wrote in French “Je pense donc je suis", and only later in Latin. He started by eliminating all things in the universe that he could not prove, and ended with only the fact that he was observing something, and thinking about it, so he must exist. But he could not convincingly prove that anything else exists!

What this means for us is that there is no way to say with confidence that we understand the Universe, or even that there is a Universe. All we can say is that we own a consistent and coherent model that might represent the way things are. In fact, I suspect that there is no reality as such. I think that the only real thing is mathematics – the world is a set of mathematical principles encoded in what we perceive as matter and energy, but in fact all we can determine is how they interact with the brain, and with the consciousness encoded in the brain.

This takes away a lot of the issues related to quantum mechanics – the idea that the Universe is somehow interacting with me, the observer. Everything is an interaction. The Moon literally doesn’t exist when I’m not looking at it – it is a set of mathematical equations that resolve when I resolve them – the act of creation for me. The unobserved tree that falls in a forest literally doesn’t make a sound – because it doesn’t have an independent reality.

When Schrondinger’s cat is neither alive nor dead in the experiment I discussed earlier, it is neither alive nor dead because until I observe it, it doesn’t exist (for me). This is the ultimate in Relativity – not only is time relative to the observer, but so is everything else! The whole of existence is relative.

You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your relativity! Or can you?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Very Nice Day

In the cool dense air over North Central Texas, my Beechcraft Sundowner climbs like a rocket. I’m light on fuel, with three empty seats. Opposite a farm house where I’m normally about 700ft above the ground level (AGL), I turn left onto the crosswind leg, and before I can level the wings heading 90 degrees, I’m at 1700 ft above Mean Sea Level (MSL), the pattern altitude at TKI.

Turning left again, heading North over a gravel pit, I ask for and receive clearance for a series of touch and go’s. The tower warns of bird activity east of the airport, but I don’t see them. Opposite the approach end, 1,000 ft AGL, about 1.5 miles to the side, I reduce power to 1500 RPM, and lower a notch of flaps. The nose comes down, and I set up a 500ft per minute descent. I do my short pre-landing check list – mixture full rich, correct tank selected, electric fuel pump on.

Left again, this time heading west, about a mile off the approach end of runway 17, I look back along the straight in approach. The tower cleared me “number 1”, so it’s supposed to be clear, but I still look anyway. It’s a good habit, because not all airports are “controlled” by a tower. Most are uncontrolled, and rely on all pilots to communicate their position with blind radio calls. But not all pilots are conscientious, some forget, and some fly airplanes without radios. So I always look.

One more left turn to align with the extended centerline, heading directly towards the approach end at 75 kts and 500 feet AGL. The VASI lights on the left side show I’m high – one red light and 3 white ones. Sundowners glide like a rock, so I prefer to be high. I add another notch of flaps to increase my descent. Once I have 2 reds and 2 whites, I know I’m on the glide path, and pull back on the yoke a bit to reduce my descent and drop a little speed.

Over the end of the runway – a perfect 50 feet up, 70 kts and slowing. I can’t believe I haven’t flown for almost 2 months! Just above the runway, pull the nose up, but not too far – the slightest hint of a ballooning action and I stop pulling – settle, settle, pull some more – and the main wheels touch without a bounce and just a little “squeak”. Best one I’ve done this year! First one I’ve done this year!

Flaps up, full power, flying speed already – we do to “go” part of a touch and go. Climbing, I follow the same procedure. The goal is to do it the same way every time, no variance, make it habit. Now there’s a Diamond DA20 (2 seat trainer) in the pattern with me. He’s fast, but not quite as fast as me. I have to spread out my pattern a little to stay in sync. I do another Touch, another Go.

This time I deliberately delay my crosswind turn, staying straight until I reach the magic 1700 ft. I’m planning to change things up. On the downwind, opposite the tower, I see the Diamond is about to touch down. “Sundowner xxx with a request”.

“”Go ahead” says the tower. “Yeah, I’d like to make this a power off precision landing, if able” I say, trying to be polite,, but clear with my request. “Cleared for close in approach, cleared to land number 2”.

The Power Off Precision Approach is a commercial maneuver you have to demonstrate as part of the commercial FAA License. It involves pulling the engine power all the way to idle opposite your chose landing spot, and carefully controlling your turns and rate of descent to touch down within 100ft of the pre-designated spot. I’ve done power off approaches before, but this is the first one I’ve tried as a precision approach. Before I started working on mastering the commercial maneuvers, it was good enough just to land on the runway. Now I’m trying to land on a dime, without the use of an engine.

It works. I find I need to delay turning towards the runway for about 1000ft, then make my base leg, followed by turn onto approach. 1 notch of flaps on the base leg, and add more as needed on final. I do this twice, and each time touched down on the white touchdown zone stripe I chose as my target. This stripe is 1000ft from the runway end on all ILS-equipped runways – knowing that helps me judge on the downwind distances.

Finally, I left the now busier airspace around McKinney, and flew east over Lake Lavon about 15 miles while climbing to 3500 ft for some airwork. I’m practicing chandelles, another commercial maneuver. It involved flying straight and level at cruise power, then adding full power while turning and climbing at the same time. To goal is to end up facing the opposite way with the maximum altitude gain – presumably to avoid some obstacle, but also to show how well you as the pilot can control the aircraft through a radical change in pitch, speed and climb.

With 3 chandelles done, it’s time to land. I head back to the field, making a call 10 miles out over the 380 bridge. Just as I prepare to call, I hear: “McKinney Tower, Cessna xxx, 10 miles east, inbound for landing”. Oops. That’s right were I am. I rapidly look all around, and chime in with “McKinney Tower, Sundowner xxx is also 10 miles east inbound, 2000ft over the bridge, with the numbers”. He didn’t give his altitude. I gave mine, along with the fact that I already had all the weather data (the “numbers”) and my exact position.

“Cessna xx, Mckinney, ident”. With that command, McKinney is asking the Cessna to press a button on his panel that causes his “target indicator” as they call the radar return to “blossom” so he can tell who is where. “Sundowner xxx, expect left base approach runway 17.” “Roger xxx”.

I start my base leg about 4 miles away. I’ve found the Cessna, off to my left, no factor. “Sundowner xxx, cleared to land runway 17. Will this be a full stop?” “Affirmative, Sundowner xxx, cleared to land”

“McKinney tower, Sundowner xxx is cleared to land, by the way I found your birds, 700Ft AGL just north east of the approach end runway 17”. “Thank you Sundowner xxx. Taxi to parking, have a nice day”

A very nice day.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

High Speed Taxi

“Clear!” The words rang across the tarmac at TKI. As the engine caught, I positioned the throttle for 1500 RPMs to warm up the engine on a chilly day, and finished the rest of the “Starting Engine” check list.

Starter disengaged? Check. Oil pressure? Rising into the green. Turn off electric pump – pressure steady on the engine driven mechanical pump. Turn on the Avionics and radios.
“Collin County Automated weather. 22 57 Zulu. Temperature 8, dewpoint -2. winds 180 at 5. Sky clear, visibility 10. Altimeter 30.31. Contact ground on 121.8, advise on initial contact you have India”

It’s Sunday morning. Despite the previous post, I’m not in church, I am flying my Beechcraft Sundowner, a low wing 4 seater with one 180 HP engine on the front.

After contacting ground, I’m cleared to taxi using taxiway Alpha to the end of runway 17 (the number refers to the magnetic heading of the runway, in this case 176 degrees. Pilots are taught to check that the heading on their compass before taking off agrees with the number of the runway assigned to prevent taking off on the wrong runway. The Delta Commuter pilots in Kentucky a few years ago obviously skipped that part).

On the run up – check the controls are free and my own add-on line item – visually check that they move the right way and both gas caps are on. Increase engine RPM to 2200, and turn off the magnetos sequentially and then add carburetor heat, and make sure that in each case the engine drops less than 50 RPMs. Turn off the alternator and make sure that the ammeter goes negative, then turn it back on, and ensure it goes positive. Back to idle, and turn on the radar transponder, make sure I have the right fuel tank selected, fuel mixture is full rich, and electric fuel pump is on. Tune to the tower and call “Sundowner xxx is ready on runway 17, I just had some engine work done, request high speed taxi then return to the end for take off”.
I had some work done on the starter motor. It shouldn’t have affected anything else, but I’m cautious when someone other than me was doing anything to the main component that allows my airplane to go up when I pull on the stick.

“Sundowner xxx cleared high speed taxi runway 17”. I lined up, added full power, but didn’t pull back at flying speed. The sundowner skipped across the bumps, clearing wanting to go up, but I pulled the throttle lever back to idle, and let the aircraft slow down. I pulled off the runway, and called for taxi clearance back to the departure end.

Back at the end, I called for take off clearance,, and asked for some touch and go’s, which were approved. Lined up, and this time at flying speed (65kts) I pulled us off the ground, let the speed climb to 75kts and climbed out at almost 1000 ft/min.

Seems good……

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Life, The Universe, and ?????

There is nothing like the death of a parent to get you thinking. I was already of a fairly philosophical mind. Most people use that phrase to really mean Fatalist, accepting whatever the world brings, but I mean that I want to get to the root of it all. The "Why's" of the matter.

Of course I live here in North Dallas, the fundamentalist Christian center of buckle in the Bible Belt. So there is no shortage of pat answers. I should here come clean about my own religious journey – from atheist to Christian to what now? I currently go to a Unitarian church which has the advantage that I can be one thing this week, and another the next, all within the scope of the non-doctrine that defines the UU beliefs. You have to make "beliefs" plural – there are a range of somewhat incompatible beliefs at this church, from Christian to agnostic, passing through Theist (believer in a personal God), Deist (believer in a non-personal god a la Spinoza/Einstein), and Buddhist (no beliefs about god at all) along the way.

I kind of like the universally accepting nature of the UU church, but have some difficulties with the “why bother” part on Sunday mornings. But Sally likes it, and Thing 1 and Thing 2 have made friends there. So we go, if not quite religiously.

Faith. Not an answer for me. Even during my fundie days I wasn’t big on faith. I want evidence. A real Doubting Thomas here, only no risen Christ has ever offered his open side for me to put my hand in. I have never believed the Bible is the Word of God – in fact it flat out says that it is not. Read the first sentences of the Gospel According to John – it is clear that John thinks that Jesus is the Word of God – not the Bible. The Bible simply claims that the Old Testament scriptures were written by men as they were moved by the Spirit of God.

The Bible is also too internally inconstant to be literally the infallible Word (did Judas hang himself, or did he fall over a rock?). No, at best the New Testament is a collection of remembrances that honorable men assembled sometime after the fact. At worst it a sampling of writings assembled and edited 400 years later to support a clerical structure bidding for power in the Roman Empire.

The Why’s are still a mystery. Is every person precious to an all powerful, loving omniscient Being? Then why the suffering and injustice? Is the only answer a Darwinist struggle to survive and nothing means anything except the continued passage of meaningless DNA? Then why Agape and the beauty and poetry?

Mmmm, still working on it…….

The Happy Funeral

Following my father's death, he was cremated. I suppose it is lucky that we did it in that order!

My Dad didn’t want a sad funeral service in a church, so we reserved a room at the funeral home in Erie PA, put a notice in the paper, and made some calls. Dad didn’t think he had a lot of friends, but close to 200 people turned up for the “celebration”.

He had a clock in the basement that every hour made a (really loud) noise like a steam train. I hid it under the lectern so that at 2pm the funeral/celebration got kicked of with the sound of a train, and laughter! We had some readings; we watched video of him on the PBS TV station (WQLN), and then people were asked if they wanted to say a few words.

My Mom told the story of how they had met. She was a 16 year old schoolgirl, and had noticed a slightly older boy. Once day after school, she came out of class to find that her bike had a flat tire. The older boy was there, saw her distress, and offered to help her. He pumped up her tire, and offered to ride with her to make sure it would stay up. It did. They became friends, and stated dating, eventually marrying 4 years later.

Only later did he admit that he had let all the air out in the first place!

Other people spoke, one a 12 year old neighbor boy who made everyone teary-eyed by saying how much he was going to miss my Dad. Finally, the celebration ended with “When the Saint Go Marching In” played by a local jazz musician on his banjo! This man was so moved I understand he has refused payment.

Finally, a dinner for about 85 people at my parent’s club in Erie, and the deed was done. My Dad’s ashes will be sprinkled over my sister’s grave in England, in March 2009.

Several people commented to me that it was the happiest funeral they had ever been to! I think Dad would have enjoyed it.